Canadian wealth is hitting new heights, though still-high consumer debts remain a worry.
Household debt grew at a slower pace than assets for a third consecutive quarter, a sign that the Canadian household debt burden is easing, according data from Statistics Canada Thursday.
The key measure of household debt to disposable income fell in the first quarter to 161.8 per cent from 162.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year, marking the second decline in a row for the first back-to-back drop in 12 years.
Still, this is up from below 90 per cent in the early 1990s, and has been a concern for the Bank of Canada and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who tightened mortgage rules a year ago.
“Following several years of rising indebtedness, excesses associated with household debt are finally starting to unwind in a gradual manner,” said economist Diana Petramala of Toronto-Dominion Bank.
“The level of Canadian household debt remains excessive in our view, leaving households vulnerable to an increase in interest rates and/or the unemployment rate. However, the decline in the debt-to-income ratio helps to reduce the risks associated with consumer leverage.”
At the same time, Statistics Canada said, household net worth climbed to reach a record $7.2-trillion in the first quarter.
On a per capita basis, net worth rise in the quarter to $204,800 from $201,400 in the previous quarter, also marking a record, according to David Onyett-Jeffries of Royal Bank of Canada.
Statistics Canada said the 1.9 per cent increase in household net worth in the first quarter was led by gains in equities and pension assets. This reflected strength in domestic stock markets, said Statscan, adding that the S&P/TSX composite index was up 2.5 per cent in the quarter, compared with a 0.9 per cent increase in the previous quarter.
So far in the second quarter, the TSX is down about 4 per cent, said Benjamin Reitzes of BMO – which poses a near-term headwind for net worth.
Over the next few years, a combination of slower consumer spending and housing activity is likely to keep household debt growth in a range of 3 per cent to 4 per cent, a pace more in line with income gains, said Ms. Petramala.
“While excesses are expected to unwind in an orderly fashion over the next few years, a continued low interest rate environment poses the risk of a renewed acceleration in household borrowing and the debt-to-income ratio,” she added.
Rising interest rates could also subdue credit growth, said Benjamin Reitzes of BMO Nesbitt Burns, which push the debt-to-income ratio lower.
“Though a lower debt burden is desirable, it likely also means more subdued consumption and economic growth,” he said. While the figures should please policymakers, modest declines in the debt ratio may not be enough to prompt the BoC to drop its mild tightening bias.